By Stuart Hall
||Lining up a putt Thursday, Janice Olivencia took her lumps on a difficult course. History, nonetheless, was made. (John Mummert/USGA)
Bethlehem, Pa. —There was a small gathering to witness history — a handful of USGA officials, the players and their caddies, and a smattering of spectators and volunteers. Missing was the usual media contingent that chronicles such occasions.
The moment, according to the official USGA clock, came on the first tee of Saucon Valley Country Club at 9:13:06 a.m., local time, with the clink of a titanium driver. At that precise second, Janice Olivencia, 26, became the first Puerto Rican female ever to play in the 64-year-old U.S. Women’s Open.
“It’s a great honor for her and for the country,” said Chi Chi Rodriguez, who is the only other Puerto Rican to play in a U.S. Open, via telephone. The 73-year-old Hall of Famer has known Olivencia since she began playing in the mid-1990s. “It certainly takes talent to get to that level and to play in a U.S. Open, and I think she has plenty of talent.”
Olivencia grasped the magnitude of her accomplishment the minute she qualified at the sectional in Wilmette, Ill.
“I knew right then I’d be setting an example for little girls back in Puerto Rico,” said Olivencia, attired in her nation’s colors — red shorts and red bow in her ponytail, white shoes and a navy blue shirt. “It’s history, and yes, I am honored and very proud to represent my country, but today I’m just another female playing in the Open.”
Olivencia’s other firsts at the Women’s Open were less auspicious. The first par didn’t come until nearly 90 minutes into her round, at the 158-yard, par-3 fourth hole. The first fairway hit came on the following hole and her first birdie came at the 559-yard, par-5 sixth, en route to a front-nine 10-over 46 that included a double, double, quadruple bogey start. Olivencia played the final 15 holes in five over for a 13-over 84.
Caddie K.C. Kim said Olivencia was not outwardly nervous, but he sensed a few more butterflies and the pressure to overcome her rickety start.
“It’s so hard to watch because as a parent you only want what’s best for your child,” said Olivencia’s mother, Gladys, who walked in the gallery and smoked an occasional cigarette to calm the nerves.
As a teenager growing up in Caguas, Olivencia easily latched onto the game and set a goal of playing — and getting an education — in the United States. The process began by working with instructors Jesus Rodriguez, Chi Chi’s brother, and Seth Bull.
“You’re not going to be noticed by college coaches playing in Puerto Rico,” said her father, Hector, who was a collegiate basketball player at Sacred Heart University in Bridgeport, Conn., was drafted by San Antonio in 1978, and was in the Puerto Rico Olympic basketball program from 1976-84. So Olivencia played a few American junior tournaments and eventually caught the eye of University of Texas coach Susan Watkins, who signed her.
Moving to Austin on her own in 2000, Olivencia launched a successful collegiate career. She won twice, was a three-time All-Big 12 Conference selection and was named the 2002 Big 12 Conference Player of the Year.
Those credentials were enough to spur Olivencia on to a professional career. In fall 2005, she qualified for the Ladies European Tour and in 12 starts the subsequent season she made nine cuts and finished 137th on the Order of Merit. In trying to improve her status for 2007, she suffered tendinitis in her left hand, which led to seven withdrawals between May and July. Olivencia decided to shut down competitive play to let it heal.
“When you have an injury as serious as that, you just don’t know how long you’re going to be out,” said Hector Olivencia.
As it turns out, she was sidelined for roughly a year. In the interim, she also switched instructors, finding it easier to work with someone in the U.S. She settled upon Kevin Kirk, director of instruction at The Woodlands Country Club, in August 2008.
With Kirk she began an overhaul of her swing, the biggest adjustment being a more consistent and longer game off the tee.
“I’m still working through the swing changes,” said Olivencia, who has made four of nine cuts in four months on the Duramed Futures Tour, the best being a T-13 at the Texas Hill Country Classic. “I think it’s going to take a little longer, so I’m just being patient and keeping my head up.”
“She has the talent to be a top five player in the world,” said Rodriguez, even though Olivencia is not even ranked among the 764 players in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings.
That fact will not be a deterrent.
“Don’t tell her ‘Don’t do this,’ because she will try to anyway,” Hector Olivencia said.
And with a nation of well-wishers behind her, Olivencia is determined that this Women’s Open won't be her last.
“No, I hope this is the first of many more to come,” she said.
Stuart Hall is a freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on www.uswomensopen.com.